Friday, November 29, 2019

Why most publisher paywalls are destined to fail

Picard: News organizations need to focus on creating value for users

Picard: Your content has to be exclusive and specialized.
Now that Google, Facebook, and other tech platforms have taken away most of their ad revenue, news publishers are realizing they need to get revenues from users to stay afloat.

Well, good luck with that. Most of the paywalls or freemium products they have created are doomed to disappointment.

Publishers will have trouble breaking their bad habits. They have been so busy delivering mass audiences to advertisers with increasingly frivolous or sensationalistic content, or delivering profits to investors by cutting key editorial staff, that they may not have the know-how or talent to produce content valuable enough that people will pay for it.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

My newsstand guy is quitting, victim of digital media

PAMPLONA, Spain -- For the past five years I have been buying my newspapers on the weekend at a neighborhood newsstand. The owner and I, Jesus Erro, got to be casual friends, and we talked about the politics and culture of our respective countries. He is a big reader.

Sign in the window announces the owner is retiring and closing the shop.
This weekend, I found out he is closing his doors and retiring after 27 years at that location. Nobody wanted to buy the business, and he had reached the legal age to retire, 62. His son is a teenager, and his wife works for the local government, and he plans to focus on them. But beyond that, he isn't sure what he will do.  

Versión en español

Three years ago, I interviewed him to get his perspective on the newspaper business in Spain. All the dailies were suffering at that time. It had been in a steady decline since 2008, first because of the financial crisis and then because of consumers' switching to digital platforms to get their news. Lately, it has gotten even worse.

Erro loves books, and his original idea when he bought the shop was to sell books. Newspapers were just a sideline. With the crisis, he also took to selling bread since lots of cafes and bakeries opened up nearby and also sold the local newspapers.

Below is a video of our 2016 interview, with subtitles in English.

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, Erro will close for the last time. He had a clearance sale going on. I bought an armload of National Geographic specials on science and archeology.

There are few nearby places to buy the national press, so I'm not sure what I will do. I still like the printed editions, especially on the weekends when there is a lot more to read.

Most of all, I'm going to miss our conversations.

Here is a link to our original interview: Newsstand owner adapts to survive media crisis

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Vargas Llosa says democracy is the best defense against propaganda and nationalism

His latest historical novel tells of CIA misinformation campaign

Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel laureate in literature, has just published a historical novel, Tough Times ("Tiempos recios"), whose plot is based on the 1954 overthrow of the democratically elected government in Guatemala that was engineered by the CIA. 

Vargas Llosa,  Photo by
For the novelist, that conspiracy has many echoes today in the status of news media organizations and the abundance of information and disinformation available to the general public.

During a publicity tour in Spain, Vargas Llosa gave an interview to El Pais, arguably the country's most prestigious daily. He said that the 1954 coup in Guatemala was masterminded for the CIA by a public relations expert named Edward L. Bernays, whose nickname was "the clever puppetmaster". Bernays's philosophy of communication could be boiled down to a phrase: propaganda will prevail over the truth.

In fact, the media campaign described in the novel was based on what really happened. A propaganda campaign persuaded the elite of Boston "that the interests of the United Fruit Company are the same as the United States, and that the recently inaugurated democracy of Guatemala puts them in jeopardy because of their dependence on the Kremlin". In fact, Soviet influence was exaggerated or non-existent; the government's land policies threatened United Fruit's business interests.

Versión en español

Friday, October 11, 2019

Letters to a newspaper publisher III: A shameful scandal right under your nose

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. His comments have acute relevance today.  

Alfonso Nieto, photo University of Navarra
In this letter to a fictitious newspaper publisher, titled "A Shameful Scandal", Alfonso Nieto criticizes media executives who are focused only on the bottom line without paying attention to the quality of the content in their own publications. (The scandal is a defamation lawsuit against a reporter.)

Nieto also emphasizes the importance of hiring journalists with high ethical standards. "This profession is so prominent that it should exclude those of mediocre character who are untrustworthy, resentful, or selfish" (p. 58).

The top executives of the media organization have the responsibility to communicate clearly the editorial standards of the organization, Nieto says. Without that, there is disorder in the newsroom. In the absence of clear direction, each section editor creates their own fiefdom, and "this disorder is the key that opens the door to misinformation and mistakes" (pp. 59-60).

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Experts explain 'How to make meetings less terrible'

The title of this blog post is taken from a Freakonomics Radio podcast by Steven J. Dubner, and I recommend listening to all 42 minutes of it. But if you can't find the time, here are some of the key points.

How terrible are meetings?
Steven Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist, says research has shown that around 70 percent of senior managers view meetings as unproductive. And these are typically the people calling the meetings.

The higher up the chain of command they go, executives attend more meetings. Rogelberg estimates most professionals in the U.S. attend 15 meetings a week."But what we know from the research is that left to just the standard protocols of people talking, that a decision better than what would have just been produced by the best individual in the room only occurs 20 percent of the time." He has written a book on the subject, The Surprising Science of Meetings.

Why are meetings so terrible?

Most meetings are done on a schedule, out of habit, and have no purpose, says Helen Schwartzman, an anthropologist at Northwestern University who wrote the book The Meeting: Gatherings in Organizations and Communities. "I would say that meetings are the organization. Which is to say that instead of having the meeting as a place to solve problems, we need to have problems and crises and decisions to produce meetings." If there are no problems to be solved, there is no reason to meet.

Letters to a publisher II: Treat your readers with respect

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. His comments have acute relevance today.

Alfonso Nieto, University of Navarra portrait
In this letter to a fictitious newspaper publisher, which he titled "The dwarf and the giant", Alfonso Nieto criticized media owners, managers, and journalists for failing to take into account the problems and the needs of their readers. Nieto saw the media industry as arrogant, looking down on the public and their viewpoints.

Beyond that, the media viewed their audiences as merely market segments to be lumped into groups based on age, gender, income, occupation, or other attributes that they could monetize. 

The arrogance

The media used a language, he believed, that emphasized their superior education and social position rather than trying to create a more intimate connection with their readers. This could very well describe the traditional media today, which have been losing readers and TV viewers because they focus much of their attention on the conflicts among political parties rather than finding solutions.

Letters to a newspaper publisher: it's not just the bottom line

How should a media executive manage the business during a time of disruptive technological change? Alfonso Nieto attempted to answer that question in his book "Letters to a newspaper publisher," written in 1987 when newsrooms in Spain were moving from typewriters to computers. Nieto was one of the pioneers in the discipline of media economics, and his writings have acute relevance today, when the media world has been disrupted again by digital technology. He was rector of the University of Navarra 1979-1991, where I now teach. 

Alfonso Nieto, University of Navarra Photo
Alfonso Nieto worked as a consultant to media executives in addition to teaching, and in this book he wanted to go public with his advice without violating any confidential information. So he created a fictitious news executive to whom he wrote a series of letters with some down-home advice. He wanted publishers to think not just of their business results and their investors but also of their publication's impact on employees, the audience, and democratic society as a whole. 

(It is interesting to note that the Business Roundtable, an organization of business leaders in the U.S., recently advocated a major change in management philosophy in line with Nieto: take into account all stakeholders--employees, customers, suppliers, and community--not just the shareholders.)